Monthly Archives: August 2013

Comic Book Wednesdays: Superheroes and ‘Literary Merit’


Welcome back, gals and pals, to another C0mic Book Wednesday! This week I’d like to talk about superhero stories as literature. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Peabody’s excellent post on women and comics (which if you haven’t read, you really should). One of the conversations that popped up was about comics being considered “real literature”–a term that bothers me from the get-go–and questioning if comics really are a worthwhile art form. Now, obviously a lot of people stepped in and said their piece: comics are literature, comics are art, the term “real literature” is a load of crap. However, I was saddened by the number of people who said something like “Yeah, superhero comics aren’t at that level but…”. I understand that a lot of people feel that way, but the truth of the matter is, like every genre, there are superhero comics that are as complex and interesting as something like Sandman or Saga. 

So, what is Fishnets to do? Well, rather than gnash my teeth and be grumpy, I figured that I can share with everyone some great superhero books that I believe have literary merit.

But first I want to discuss the terms “literary merit” and “real literature”. I don’t like them. I don’t like using them. I hate that there’s this idea of entertainment versus art, or real versus fake. What does fake literature even mean? Does it mean that someone wrote it for a paycheck? Well, that doesn’t work. Plenty of people wrote for paychecks: Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle. Is it a genre thing? Nothing speculative? No, cause then we’ve got to cut out Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. Is it a time thing? Nah, I took a whole bunch of contemporary literature classes in college.

Classifying certain things as entertainment and certain things as art just serves to create an unnecessary divide, one that keeps people from remembering that art and entertainment need each other to exist. Michael Chabon wrote a fantastic article called “Trickster in a Suit of Light: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story” in which he discusses the relationship between art and entertainment. He writes:

No self-respecting literary genius, even an occasional maker of avowed entertainments like Graham Greene, would ever describe him- or herself as primarily an “entertainer.” An entertainer is a man in a sequined dinner jacket, singing “She’s a Lady” to a hall filled with women rubber-banding their underpants up onto the stage

Yet entertainment–as I define it, pleasure and all–remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection.

The truth of the matter is that really the only thing we can study about literature is the content and the craft. And when I say content, I don’t mean “is there a dude running around in his underoos?” I mean what is going on behind the text. What is the story really about? What is the author presenting here, and what can we take away from it? Art is all about objectivity and is entirely reliant on the audience and the response of the audience. So, if we think about literature this way, of course superhero comics can be literature. Anything can be literature. As long as it goes above and beyond telling a surface level story, then it’s worth a second look, regardless of genre.

There are some examples that are easily cited for superhero books as literature. Just look at Watchmen. That book is absolutely, one hundred precent a superhero book. I mean, for christ’s sake, it involves an evil mastermind plot involving a giant squid alien creature destroying Manhattan. Does that mean that it’s not absolutely brilliant and shouldn’t be on Time’s 100 Best Novels list? Of course not. Superhero comics are a genre, and while not all superhero books will stand the test of time, that same sentiment applies to n0n-superhero comics too, and to prose, and to music, and movies, and all of popular culture. Remember guys, while 90% of everything may be crap, there’s always that 10% worth engaging with.

So, lets look at three superhero comics that belong in that 10%, that are worth reading over and over, and that marry the concepts of art and entertainment.

1. “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” (words by Joe Kelly, art by Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo)


This single issue Superman story is one of the best Superman books I’ve ever read. We all know about the big, blue boy scout. The good natured boy from Kansas (who’s really from space) who goes out of his way to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. And the fact is that a lot of people make fun of the character for it. People say that Superman is boring, one dimensional, and overpowered, without realizing how juxtaposing that insane power level with a life amongst every day humans gives the character a beautiful depth. How do you remain human when it would be so easy to be a god? What does it mean to be human? How hard is it to always make the right decisions, rather than the easy ones?

These questions are what writer Joe Kelly and artists Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo seek to tackle in this book. The premise is simple: a group of so-called heroes called The Elite appears on the scene, only they have no regard for life, safety, or the people they’re supposedly protecting. They have no problem racking up oodles of collateral damage and deem themselves judge, jury, and executioner. They find Superman, and those of his ilk, to be irrelevant and useless. In their minds, Superman and other heroes like him have all this power, so they should use it to mold the world’s view into what their version of right is. Superman is forced to evaluate if there is a place for his moral code in the ever-changing world. Through this book, Kelly asks readers to consider where the line should be drawn in terms of violence, especially in the face of comics like The Authority gaining popularity.

Many superhero books ruminate on power, how power should be used, and what it should be used for; but there’s something unique about What’s So Funny. It’s not just about power, but about how power goes hand and hand with an individual’s moral code and world view. Often, conflicts aren’t about who did what to who, but with how our views differ from each other. And like Superman, we often have to battle with figuring out which decisions are right and which are easy, and if they can ever be the same decision.

2. Spider-Man: Blue (words by Jeph Joeb, art by Tim Sale)


Now, we all know the themes that Spider-Man stories focus around, right? Power? Responsibility? Uh… clever remarks? More responsibility? Yes, these are the themes that are constantly addressed in Spider-Man books, and one of the really nice things about Spider-Man: Blue is that it doesn’t really do that. Instead, we find a Spidey book that’s full of themes on remembrance, grief, and love.

Spider-Man: Blue is part of a group of miniseries often referred to as “The Color Books” (the other two are Daredevil: Yellow and Hulk: Grey). These books, written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale, all take classic Marvel characters and focus on a specific part of their early days as a superhero, seeking to highlight why these characters are who they are. All of them are wonderful, but Spider-Man: Blue really stands out. Rather than take the obvious path and tell a story relating to Uncle-Ben’s death, Loeb and Sale instead decide to focus on the character of Gwen Stacy. Even more surprisingly, the book does not focus on her death scene (an issue for feminism and comics, as can be seen here), but rather on her life and how she and Peter fell in love.

The comic is brilliant for a number of reasons (it fits in perfectly with the original Stan Lee Spidey issues, it’s great for new readers and die-hard fans, etc.), but perhaps the reason it’s so fascinating from a literary standpoint is the use of the framing device. The whole story is actually Peter looking back and writing a letter to Gwen on Valentine’s Day, years after her death as well as years after his marriage to Mary Jane. The result is that this beautiful little love story has a wistful melancholy tone to it. We see Peter overjoyed with finally getting the girl he loves, but we know that one day he will lose her, one day she will die, and that’s heartbreaking. But it stresses the importance of how remembrance often breathes new life into those long gone, and how grief is not a thing that is there one day and gone the next, it comes and goes for our whole lives.

Is it worth remembering such beautiful things if they’re only going to hurt later? How does a person’s life leave a lasting impact after they’re gone? In the case of Gwen Stacy, does a life matter more than a death in the terms of a narrative? These are the questions that Spider-Man: Blue seeks to find answers for.

3. Starman (words by James Robinson, art by Tony Harris) 


A big theme in superhero books is legacy: Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl, Flash and Kid Flash, Black Canary and Black Canary. We love the story of the young pupil taking on the mantle, continuing the mission. But what happens when someone just doesn’t want to take on that mantle? What happens when someone wants to pull away from the family?

Family is the key theme in James Robinson and Tony Harris‘ Starman. Back in the golden age of superheroes, Ted Knight donned the costume of Starman and protected Opal City from the villains that threatened it. Now, he’s old and retired, and he has two sons: David, who jumps at the chance to be Starman, and Jack, who wants absolutely nothing to do with the whole thing. Jack wants to run his antique shop in peace, away from the capes and tights of the superhero world. He’s more than happy to let his brother go off and play hero. But then David is killed as part of a vendetta against Starman’s old nemesis The Mist, and Jack is forced to step into the hero role to save his father, his city, and himself. After this, Jack takes on the mantle of Starman (sans tights) and the rest of the series focuses on his unique way of being a hero, which often conflicts with his father’s way.

Starman goes all over the place with its stories and themes, but it always comes back to one thing: family, specifically Jack and his father. The two men are radically different, but at their core they’re the same, and that causes conflict between the two. The relationship between the the Knights asks the reader to consider numerous questions. How do we deal with family when our desires seem so different than their desires? What obligations do we owe our parents and their legacy? What obligations do they owe us? How do we reconcile with things that seem impossible? How do we step out of the shadow of family and become our own individual?

I’ll be honest, I’m still in the middle of Starman, but from what I know from those who have read the series, the questions raised in the earlier issues carry all the way through, resulting in a book that tries it’s damned hardest to define what family is.


While these three books were the ones I chose to write about, I considered a long list of possible stories to spend time babbling about. For those of you interested, this list includes: Batman: The Long Halloween, Kingdom Come, Planetary, Ex Machina, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Death of Captain Marvel, Rising Stars, Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest, and many, many more. For those of you who may have had doubts about the superhero genre, I hope you feel like there’s now something for you to explore. Superhero comics are indeed often about the “BAM! BOOM! POW!” but sometimes they can be about so much more. 

What about you guys? What are your favorite stories with strong literary themes? What are some of yours that are just awesome? What do you think about idea that some things are “real” literature and others aren’t?

See you all next Comic Book Wednesday!

This post originally appeared on GroupThink under my username fightinginfishnets.

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Comic Book Wednesdays: Spotlight on Emma Rios

Welcome back, gals and pals, to another Comic Book Wednesday! Last time I did a spotlight piece it was on a fairly well known and popular artist. I wish that all talented female creators could be as famous as Amanda Conner or Gail Simone, but that’s simply not the case right now. I’d like to see more creators gain that recognition though, and the only way to make someone well known is by talking about them and supporting their work.

So, without further ado, I’d like to shine the spotlight on one of the most talented artists in the industry: the incredible Emma Ríos!


What has she done? 

Emma Ríos is a Spanish artist who originated in the European comics scene and has crossed over to the American one. Early on, when she still had a day job as an architect, Ríos was working with the Galician comic collective Polaqia (their Spanish language website can be viewed here). She has done a lot of work with them, and still has a strong connection to the group. Her major works with Polaqia are contributions to the magazine Barsowia, which includes both cover art and interior work, and a very well-recieved sci-fi miniseries called A Prueba de Balas [Bulletproof].

Ríos began her career as a full-time comics artist when she landed a job with BOOM! Studios, illustrating the miniseries Hexed in 2008. The series was co-created with author Michael Alan Nelson, who continues to do work for BOOM!. The series was only four issues, but it was given good reviews, with no small thanks to the fantastic art by Emma Ríos. Her art had a fresh, unique feel to it, and it radically differed from the typical ‘house-style’ of American comics. Just the cover alone serves as an excellent hook for both the art and story inside. While the book reached a fairly small audience, it was enough for Ríos to get her foot in the door and begin her rise to the top of American comics.

After working with BOOM!, Ríos began working primarily for Marvel Comics. She has done lots of work for them over the past few years. Her artist credits include the Doctor Strange miniseries Strange, written by Mark Waid; the Spider-Island tie-in miniseries Cloak and Dagger, written by Nick Spencer; and the miniseries Osborn: Evil Incarcerated, written by Kelly Sue Deconnick.

She has also done numerous one-shots and guest artist appearances for Marvel Comics, including work on Captain Marvel, RunawaysAmazing Spider-Man, Elektra, Firestar, Heralds, and Girl Comics.

Her biggest project for Marvel has been the OGN (original graphic novel) Doctor Strange: Season One, written by Greg Pak. The Season One line is a series of graphic novels that are meant to retell and modernize the origin stories of popular Marvel characters. For the most part, I’ve found them to be pretty mediocre. However, Doctor Strange was a beautifully drawn and written diamond in the rough, and was one of the most well reviewed Season One books. And while it is a good story, the book would not be nearly half as good without Ríos’ art.

Ríos also has a new book coming out this fall, called Pretty Deadly, which I am extremely excited for.

So, let’s take a closer look at her art:



Why Should I Love Her?

There are many reasons to love Emma Ríos. A major one is her style. Ríos manages to mix chaos and precision in each page she draws. Her pencils are angular and detailed but her pages, as whole pieces, are full of busy activity and kinetic motion. Yet, despite all the activity, Ríos always knows how to draw your eye to exactly where it needs to focus. She takes your hand and guides you through the delightful and frightening insanity of her world, and with each step you are able to enjoy every last, meticulously thought out detail. 

Ríos has worked with some really fantastic writers, but I’d argue that Ríos is able to tell a story all on her own without any help from a writer. She is amazing at conveying emotion, tone, and character just with a few strokes from her pencil. Let’s take a look at this page:



I love this page (from her Cloak and Dagger miniseries). What words are needed here? Just by looking at the page you can tell who these characters are, what they’ve been through, how it has impacted who they are now, and how connected they are. There’s a real sense of loneliness here, but the kind of loneliness that drives you to seek out another person who has been through the same thing. With her intricate details and complex compositions, Ríos manages to convey a story in a way that many of us would never have dreamed up.

One of the other really amazing things about Ríos’ art is her incredible mastery of motion. Motion and creating the illusion of movement is essential to a good comic. How else can you convey the wonder of flying, the power of a punch, or the excitement of a chase? A good comic creates a kind of mental animation, so that you forget that you’re looking at a series of still images. A good comic will take your brain from panel to panel and from page to page without you ever even realizing it. Not every artist has the talent to do this, no matter how beautiful their art is (sorry, Alex Ross). Emma Ríos, however, is a master.

I don’t know if it’s a combination of the delicate pencils and super bold inks or if it’s the super attention to how motion affects everything, but Ríos’ art has some of the best kinetic motion I’ve ever seen in a comic. Maybe it’s the architect in her, but every last little detail that conveys motion is present in her work (how hair and clothing is affected, how the environment id affected. For example, in these Captain Marvel panels you can almost see the motorcycle barreling down the road or feel the tension as Carol leaps over the banister. It’s really difficult to pull of these poses with such fluidity, but Ríos does it.

I am thrilled that Emma Ríos has entered the American comics scene. I think she has the capacity to be a total superstar artist in time, along with other foreign artists like Oliver Copiel (French), Francis Lenil Yu (Filipino), Gabriel Bá (Brazilian), and Fabio Moon (Brazilian). I’d argue that we need more and more creators from different backgrounds in comics, that’s the only way that comics will evolve and change as an art form.

So, f you’re interested in Emma Ríos I recommend starting with her Doctor Strange work (both Strange and Doctor Strange: Season One) as well as her work on Cloak and Dagger, which can be found in the Spider-Island Companion book. I also recommend putting a reminder on your calendar that Pretty Deadly will be making its way to your local comic shop on October 23rd. Trust me, you want to be on the ground floor for this book. I’ve got a really good feeling that this book is going to be huge.

For more Emma Ríos art, you can check out her personal blog here. There was also a great interview she did with Multiversity Comics yesterday, which you can read here. Also, if any of you have cash to burn, you can buy (or at least browse) Ríos’ original art at Cadence Comic Art.


I had a lot of fun writing this spotlight. Emma Ríos is one of my favorite artists, and I love seeing her get more and more attention each year. I’m curious how many people knew about her before this article. Also, who are some of your favorite artists (male or female)? Who would you like to read a spotlight on?

See you next Wednesday!

I would also like to give a shout-out to the colorist that Emma Ríos often works with, the fantastically talented Jordie Bellaire. Bellaire will also be working on Pretty Deadly!

Also, a big thank you from Mr. Fishnets for reading his article last week. You guys are the best!

This piece originally appeared on GroupThink under my username fightinginfishnets.

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